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What Does it Take to Be an Olympic Fencer?


Posted Date: 7/24/2012

Nzingha Prescod, U.S.A. Fencing Team

At 19 years old, Nzingha Prescod will be attending her first Olympics this July. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Nzingha has already made her mark in the world of competitive fencing. The sport is often referred to as “physical chess” because fencing requires competitors to make intricate moves in a split-second. Although many spectators pay attention to a fencer’s blade-wielding abilities, elite athletes know that proper footwork and balance are the keys to success.

“A person’s ability to maintain balance is a very complex process,” explains Dr. Ellen Drexler, Associate Director of Neurology. “It is not determined by one particular part of the brain or body, but rather an interaction among a number of sensory and motor systems.”  For example, we can analyze Nzingha’s movement, and the balance it requires, as she lunges toward her opponent:

  1. The vestibular system, including the receptors in the inner ear that are sensitive to the force of gravity and to the momentum of head movements, provides the brain with information which allows it to perceive her body’s position relative to its environment.
  2. In addition to providing movement, muscles contain receptors that send signals to the brain and spinal cord that give information on how much stretch and tension are in the muscle. The body is then able to constantly adjust muscle length and manage changes in posture in order to maintain balance.
  3. Position sense receptors in Nzingha’s muscles and joints give the brain information on where her arm is in space as she moves forward to attack. Skin pressure receptors on the soles of her feet sense what part of the body is touching the ground. These provide additional information to the brain on the position of her joints and limbs to help her keep her balance.

During this whole interaction, the central nervous system (consisting of the spinal cord and brain, especially the cerebellum) processes all of this information at once.  “Normally, balance control is accomplished automatically and a person is unaware of the effort required to keep them upright,” explains Dr. Drexler. However, when balance is disrupted a person must make a conscious effort to maintain control. During a fencing match, in which the athlete is constantly darting back and forth, this intense effort can lead to fatigue. Luckily for Nzingha, balance is a skill that can be nurtured with practice. “Anatomical changes, such as increased synaptic density, can be demonstrated to occur as a result of training and practice,” asserts Dr. Drexler. Learning involves more connectivity in the brain, increasing the speed of reactions. As a result of vigorous practice, Nzingha is therefore more attuned to being off-balance and can quickly correct her movement during a fencing match.

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